Lowe Cauble worked as a butcher in the little community of Oakley, North Carolina. I was ten years old when we moved there; thirteen when we left. Christmas came to our house when Lowe Cauble came to visit. As the waiting days of Advent came to a close—when the flurry of Sunday School parties and Christmas pageants and children’s Christmas concerts had come and gone—I knew I had to wait just a little longer.
The doorbell would ring. Mom or Dad would go to the door. And there would stand Mr. Cauble; immaculate in his long coat; an enormous box in his arms, filled to overflowing with all the makings of our Christmas. He brought turkey and meat, fruits and vegetables, cranberry sauce and sweets; and small gifts for my brother and for me.
The food he delivered to the family of his preacher is not why I remember Mr. Cauble. What I remember is the joy.
Even as a child, I recognized his joy as beyond remarkable. Cancer had been cruel to him; taking part of his neck, his face, his ear, his jaw, his tongue. It affected his speech. In some ways, his appearance was grotesque, except for the beam of pure joy.
So often at Christmas, we hunger after happiness. Yet happiness proves a fickle, fleeting thing; a lesser thing; a mere mood. At Christmas, the church sings “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” Joy: the sacred energy in motion that arises when the love that is God meets a human heart rich in love.
Lowe Cauble and his wife Harriett loved me as if I were their own child. Sitting with them at their elegant table, we talked together like grown-ups. Harriett pampered me with pretty dresses; Lowe rejoiced in my accomplishments in the church choir. In their presence, I experienced joy.
We moved from that place before I learned Mr. Cauble’s story. Yet I know, in the way that only a child knows, that if the gospel writer asked Lowe Cauble to complete this sentence: “Now the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, took place in this way…” Mr. Cauble could tell you how that birth took place in him.
Christmas comes. It comes as joy. The labor pains have yet to begin; the baby waits to be born. And yet Christmas comes. (Craddock)
Just over a week ago, the Cathedral joined with the Embassy of South Africa to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela. In the planning process, I spoke with Peter Storey, a Methodist pastor, sometimes known as Mandela’s prison chaplain.
In Storey’s words, twenty-seven years in prison grew Mandela from an aggressive, tough, feisty, likeable, charismatic, but pretty arrogant man into a man with a quiet center; a center that made it possible for him to make a space for everyone; to see the value in everyone.
Africa and Christian spirituality wedded in him; Mandela became the great includer. “You need a very big heart,” says Storey, “to wrap everyone inside it. Nelson Mandela did that particularly well with enemies.”
He found humanity in brutal prison guards and won them over. He invited the spouses and widows of the most cruel racists to tea. And when one of them declined, feigning illness to avoid attending, he dropped in on her: by helicopter. A later photograph would catch a glimpse of them; together, smiling.
Mandela insisted on free health care for nursing mothers and children under six years old; regardless of the cost. For twenty-seven years, he did not hear the sound of children. Every birthday after his release, children joined in the celebrations. “We have to listen to them,” he said. “They have much to teach us.” (Phone conversation with and email reflections by Peter Storey)
Christmas comes. It comes as forgiveness, comes as reconciliation, comes as welcome. The labor pains have yet to begin. The baby waits to be born. And yet, Christmas comes.
The choice that Joseph faces stings and stuns him. Mary, his betrothed, is either an adulteress or a woman visited by the Spirit of God. Betrothal meant papers had been signed; contractual agreements had been made; which only a court could undo.
Joseph considers his options. Legally, he has two.
He can seek a public divorce. And while preserving his good name, this choice proves deadly for Mary. The law prescribed that an adulteress woman be stoned to death in the streets, before all the people.
Joseph’s other option? A private divorce: no blame assigned; no public trial. This choice consigns Mary to life as an outcast, a beggar living on the margins of society, struggling to provide for herself and for child.
Faced with a mess not of his own making; disappointed, betrayed, hurt; caught in a bind between loving Mary and loving Scripture, Joseph struggles. A righteous man, he cannot see beyond legal options. A good man, he has no desire to cause unnecessary pain. Joseph resolves to put Mary quietly aside.
“Not good enough,” says God; “compassion, righteousness; not good enough.” God intervenes; sends a messenger to move Joseph to exceed righteousness and to choose mercy.
Mercy: the most encompassing movement of God’s heart. Mercy: an outpouring of costly love. Mercy: unexpected evidence of God’s gracious generosity. (Mogabgab)
God’s child waits to be born. Joseph will protect Mary; will marry her and raise her boy; will look at her and at her child with the eyes and heart of God. We know all this about him, thought he never speaks a word.
Joseph will live with the consequences of this choice for the rest of his life. A carpenter in a small town, people can and will do the math. In our day, with so many children born outside the covenant of marriage, Joseph’s dilemma may seem trivial or quaint; his choice, his courage insignificant. Yet, in his day, Joseph extends to Mary and to her unborn son, God’s own child, an exceptional and excessive mercy. (Brown Taylor)
He will bear her shame and humiliation. He will share the disgrace and the disdain that will surely come. He will leave family and home, friends and livelihood, to protect Mary and her son from a murderous king.
Christmas comes. It comes as mercy. The labor pains have yet to begin. The baby waits to be born. And yet, Christmas comes.
Three men awaken one day to find their lives changed by circumstances they cannot control. Their lives will not proceed according to plan; their dreams will not come to fruition. Cancer—prison—even God—have made a mess of their lives and hopes.
Yet deep, deep, deep in the mystery of God—in the stirrings of the divine heart, in the unfathomable, unfailing love of the Creator—God makes a decision.
God will come. God will come among us. God will come as one of us. God will come as child.
According to Matthew, the birth of God’s child requires human cooperation. (Brown Taylor)
Christmas comes: as Lowe Cauble, made grotesque by a cruel disease, living as joy; as Nelson Mandela, honed and purified in the crucible of imprisonment and suffering, bringing hope to a divided land that they can be otherwise; as Joseph, Son of David, daring to believe the promise of God’s messenger; that mercy can transform mess, allowing the very incarnation of God to have life and breath and being in the world.
“Now the birth of Jesus, the Messiah takes place in this way…” When you and I, when families and communities, when cathedrals and nations look at the greed and violence, the pain and suffering, the injustice and hatred, the mess we have made of God’s world—and dare to believe that in soft, sweet baby skin and in beautiful, soul-piercing child’s eyes, God comes. Comes to dwell with us—Emmanuel; comes to save us—Jesus; comes to set us free—Messiah.
And whenever that happens; however that happens. Christmas comes.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, ends his poem “Advent Calendar” with these words:
He will come, will come will come like crying in the night; like blood, like breaking as the earth writhes to toss him free. He will come like child.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
“The man who loved Mary”, William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, 1995, December 24, 2013.
“Editor’s Introduction,” John Mogabgab, Weavings, volume xv:5.
“God is with us,” Fred Craddock, Collected Sermons
“Belieiving the Impossible,” Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine.
“Advent Calendar,” Rowan Williams, The Poems of Rowan Williams, 2002.
“Awaiting Holy Coos and Googles,” Dianne Andrews, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XVI, Number 1.